Need to get in touch? Poste Restante is old news. E-mail is the new travellers' tool.
Everyone knows that the Internet is changing the way we travel. You can research every aspect of a forthcoming trip in excruciating detail; you can book your hotel in Fiji without so much as a telephone call, let alone a travel agent; you can download a street map of Bamako, Mali; and you can induce airlines to compete for the privilege of providing you with the cheapest possible fares.

The Internet, however, is also having an impact on a group of travellers traditionally immune to technological progress in the travel industry, namely those people wandering around India, or South-East Asia, or South America. This mode of travel requires only an air fare and pounds 5 a day, plus the kind of physical and mental stamina that can withstand steamy overnight journeys in packed buses built to accommodate people under 5ft tall. In this culture, the very notion of booking a hotel room in advance is repugnant.

The Internet eliminated a major feature of this kind of travel, the Poste Restante pitstop. Even the hardiest of travellers appreciates occasional contact with home, even if it's merely inconsequential aerogramme-chat from mum or the latest depressing news from Crystal Palace FC.

Before the Internet, that meant having mail sent care of Poste Restante counters in major post offices, or to American Express offices. Hence even the most dedicated non-scheduler was forced to dream up some sort of pre-departure itinerary: "I'm planning to be in Kathmandu by the end of November, Delhi by the end of March, Bangkok in June..."

Mail pick-ups had thus undermined the whole spontaneity thing - the "I'll go where I want, when I want" mentality - before you had even set foot on a foreign shore.

Mail pick-ups used to be an important part of a trip. You would never have admitted that in the course of your wanderings you were occasionally just a little homesick, but nevertheless that dog-eared letter from mum ended up occupying that privileged spot in the side pocket of your backpack for several months. And it wasn't the letter's literary merit that made it such a keeper. Of course, it was not only mum who got that vague itinerary. The university of your dreams may have chosen to inform you via Poste Restante that it was not, after all, to be the university of your plans.

Email has changed all this. Using a free webmail email account that can be accessed using any web browser, today's traveller can put those dusty afternoons in post offices behind them. In India, "Hotmail", Microsoft's runner in the webmail stakes, seems universally popular, and computers in Indian Internet cafes typically default to the Hotmail home page. All you have to do is bring mum up to speed on the Internet, and armed with your new email address, you are at liberty to communicate with parents and the Ideal University admissions office as frequently as you like.

Furthermore, email actually returns to the traveller that little element of spontaneity stolen by the old mail pick-up itinerary. Pre-Internet, dropping, say, Delhi from your route, for whatever reason, came at a price.

That decision meant sacrificing whatever mail might have been awaiting you in Delhi, and you were haunted forever more by the image of all those loving letters mouldering quietly away in the unvisited post office. But now those letters-lost nightmares are a thing of the past. Schedules are, courtesy of email, now even more flexible.

Internet connections are surprisingly easy to come by, even in the most obscure places, though the rule of thumb is the more obscure they are, the more they'll cost. In India, for example, even relatively small towns boast what is ambitiously styled a "Cyber Cafe". Typically the this is more a cyber grubby office, with a single, new, shiny computer sitting incongruously amidst the disintegrating ledgers and dusty files. Prices vary, but rates for full Internet access in India are generally around pounds 1 an hour, which doesn't work out too badly if all you're doing is checking your mail and sending off a quick Hi-I'm-in-Calcutta-and-I've-got-dysentery message.

The Internet has become essential, too, in facilitating communication between people on the road. Imagine the following scenario: you run into the beautiful Brigitta from Sweden on a train in Rajasthan. You travel together for a couple of weeks, and things, as they say, are going well. But Brigitta has made arrangements to meet her sister in Madras, and you have pressing reasons for going to Calcutta. The end of a beautiful friendship?

Not necessarily. You will both be heading to Nepal in a couple of months' time, and could meet up there again.

How to meet up? The traditional solution to this problem has been to communicate via bulletin boards, such as the famous one in the Kathmandu Guest House, Kathmandu. This can be a pretty hit-or-miss affair. Notes get periodically purged by the management, or may be buried by more recent ones pinned on top of them. On that fateful day when Brigitta comes to look for your note, it may have been inadvertently concealed by Klaus who is trying to sell his motorcycle. Now, courtesy of your hotmail identities, communication is not a problem, and the story inevitably has a happy ending.

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